“I need to ask you a question,” I said.
“Did you take a little, um, memento of me out on the road with you?”
Silence on the other end of the phone.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“My pink bra is missing.”
“And you think I took it?”
“And the matching panties.”
“You’re losing your underwear? Sounds like I should ask what you’ve been doing.”
“Seriously, Eric. That’s the expensive stuff.”
“Seriously, Karen. Why would I do that?”
“Well, okay. I know why I might do that. But no, I don’t have it.”
* * *
I come home from school. Dude who lives upstairs is sitting on the front steps.
“You’re always carrying books!”
“You’re studying accounting?”
“Eh, sort of. It’s a class my company would pay for.”
“Well, yeah. Used to be.”
“Yeah. He’s driving now. Long-haul?”
“You’re not just visiting anymore. You live here now?”
“Yeah. For a while, anyway.”
“I see your cats in the window all the time.”
“Charlie and Sam love it here. They have a great view of the outdoors. Speaking of which, I better go feed them.”
Eric’s lived in this building for a couple of years, I've seen the guy around. I figure they know each other.
* * *
“Okay, Eric, this isn’t funny. Now the blue bra and panties are missing. I really don’t mind if you’re taking the stuff, please just tell me.”
“Karen, I’m not taking your underwear.”
“And that white half t-shirt is gone, too.”
“Oh. I like that shirt.”
“I know you do. Which is why I’m asking. Is it in your truck?”
“No. It’s not."
"I don't have it! The point of me liking something is that you are in it, Karen. I don't have a thing for your bra. I have a thing for what's in the bra. Right?”
“I know. But this is bizarre! Socks disappear in the wash. Not bra and panty sets.”
“Maybe somebody’s stealing stuff out of the laundry room.”
“Yeah, that occurred to me. I’ve been watching it pretty carefully. I don’t know when they’re doing it, if they are.”
“Or maybe you're leaving this stuff somewhere. Like after you finish your shifts at Blues?”
“Hahahaha. Shut up.”
“I bet it’s at Stanley’s house.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
“They say women like guitar players, but I know you, you like bass players. Did Son play last weekend?”
"And was Stanley on bass?"
“And did he hit on you again?”
"No! It was just that one time."
"Eric, he didn't know who you were. Now he asks if you're around before he even sits down at the bar."
* * *
It’s near 10 pm, I’m exhausted. I open the apartment door. The lamp is on in the living room. What? I never leave it on. I barely turn it on. I leave for work around 8:30am, then at 5:00pm I drive to a fast food place and stuff junk in my mouth while I cram pages from my books into my brain. By 6 pm, I’m in my classroom. I get in the car at 9:30 pm and I drive home, thinking about what absolutely-must-be-done within the next hour or two before I go to bed. What is going on? Why is that lamp on?
* * *
“Where are you?”
“Load of Coke machines. I’m dropping them in Michigan tomorrow.”
“Then you’ll be home?”
“Where else would I go?”
“I don’t know. Wilmette.”
“I don’t know. I thought maybe you might want to come home, and hang out somewhere else. Not have to see me.”
“HAVE to see you? What does that mean?”
“Sorry, I don't mean it that way. I'm trying to say that if you want to come home sometimes and not see me, it's okay. I would understand.”
“But I want to see you."
"I know. But maybe not every time. And that's okay."
"Karen, it's never occured to me to not see you when I'm home."
"Really all right?"
"Yeah, I'm just--"
"I don't, I can't--"
"Karen, it's okay, just say it. Help me. I don't understand why we're talking about this."
“Because maybe you've been coming in town but not telling me? Like last week? And a couple of weeks ago?”
“No. I haven't been home since I last saw you.”
“I won’t be mad, Eric. If you wanted to stay at your parents’ house or whatever. I just need you to tell me if you stopped by here last week when I wasn't home.”
“Karen, I wasn’t home last week. I wouldn’t be coming home this week if I was home last week, would I?"
"And I wouldn't do that, anyway. I come home to see you. I used to see you every day, at work. Why do you think I would avoid you now?”
“Well, I don't. But. A couple of weeks ago, I came home one night and the living room light was on. And I didn’t leave it on."
“Maybe you forgot.”
“No, I didn’t."
"Maybe it was maintenance."
"I don't think so. There wasn't any work done that I could see. And then it happened again last week. And things were moved.”
“A pillow that was on the couch was on the floor.”
“Maybe Charlie knocked it down. “
“I don’t think so. And the kitchen curtain was opened. And I didn’t open it.”
“Well, it wasn’t me.”
“Well, it wasn’t Charlie.”
* * *
Yay! Eric’s beat-to-hell brown station wagon is in front of the building. I hear the Grateful Dead as soon as I open my car door. Cubs are on the TV screen (no volume). Eric is freshly showered, lying on the couch in shorts and a t-shirt, beer in hand. He is smiling. “You don’t have class tonight, right?”
Later, I explain what’s been going on. More lingerie is missing. He listens with furrowed brow.
“Are you sure it didn’t disappear all at once? Like somebody broke in and took a bunch of stuff?”
“No. It’s like every week something new turns up missing.”
He gets up and looks at the windows, checks the doors—unlike most apartments, this one has a front door and a back door. He sees no evidence of a break-in. Then he goes out the back door, stands looking at the laundry room, which is next-door.
“Maybe somebody is stealing stuff out of the dryer?”
“I don’t put that stuff in the dryer. I put in the washer, then hang it in the bathroom to dry."
“Which means someone would have to steal it out of the washer. And it’s not like the stuff isn’t in that packed-down state when I open the washer. I’d know if someone was messing with it. Which means they’d have to grab it out of a washer that is full of water.”
“That doesn’t explain the lamp, anyway.”
“Or the kitchen curtain. Did you ever give one of your friends a key to this place?”
"No." He shakes his head, thinking. “Has anybody said anything to you? Any weird phone calls?”
“Nobody’s hanging around?”
“Just that guy who lives upstairs. He’s sitting out front a lot. But he just says hi. Asks about you. Asks about my school. Cuz I’m always carrying books, ya know.”
“Asks about me?”
“How you’re doing with the driving. He asked if you were moving out, because he saw you carrying those boxes out to your car last time. I thought you knew him.”
“Just to say hi to. I don’t know him. What did you tell him?”
“Nothing, really. I just said you weren’t moving out right now, just moving some stuff to your parents' house. I didn’t go into the whole plan, if that’s what you mean.”
“Is he flirting with you?”
“Oh, Jesus. Eric.”
“Karen, I’m not being jealous. I’m being concerned.”
“Oh, sorry. I don’t know. He does seem to pay a little too much attention to me. I don’t know. He’s married, anyway.”
“So?” Eric shrugs.
“Well, I know. But—”
“Don’t talk to him.”
“Just ignore him?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“But that’s rude.”
“It’s not rude if he’s stealing your underwear.”
“But I don’t want to be mean to him if it's not him."
"Don't worry about it, Karen. He can take it. Make very clear that you're not interested."
"Eric, I haven't done anything—”
"I'm not saying that you have. I'm just saying, make it very clear. Like you do with the guys at Blues."
* * *
I go to my underwear drawer, open it. I’m looking for my black bra, the comfortable one. Bartending tonight. It’s not here. God damn it! I look in the hamper. No. I look under the bed. No. WTF? That’s it. I’ve had it.
This stuff cannot be disappearing into thin air. I’m going to figure out once and for all if someone has been in this apartment. I ponder. Both lamp incidents have happened on a Wednesday.
The next Wednesday morning, I set my trap. I go around the apartment, stopping at each window. First, I slide it closed (the windows are on a track, like a sliding glass door), lock it, then stick a piece of tape from the pane to the casing, down in the corner. I don't want the tape to be visible from the outside. When I'm finished, there’s no way anyone can enter or exit through any window without disturbing the tape. And thus showing himself.
Then, back door. I put a piece of tape between the door jamb and the surface of the door, down near the bottom. I stick it on as firmly as possible, so it won't fall off. For good measure, I lean a kitchen chair against the door, as close to 45 degrees as I can manage. No way to exit and get that chair back in the same position. I can’t figure out a way to mark the front door. I have to go out that way. All I can do is turn the deadbolt. I remind myself to pay attention to the deadbolt when I return. Maybe the person does have a key, and will trip himself up by failing to turn the deadbolt when he leaves.
I come home late, after class, put the key into the deadbolt. It's engaged. I open the front door. No lamp on. I take a couple of steps inside, flick on the hall light. I can see right down the hall, to where the chair is leaning against the back door. I heave a little sigh of relief. Good news. Now, to the windows: Two in the living room, one in the kitchen, one in the bedroom. Tape is on all of them. Big sigh of relief.
I come out of the bedroom, grab the chair, to put it back in the kitchen. I glance down. The tape isn’t on the door.
But the chair was tilted against the door.
But the TAPE is gone.
Maybe the cats did it.
I don’t know how. Oh shit, oh shit.
Hello, adrenaline. THINK anyway. Think, woman.
I go to my closet, open it. I look at the little chest of drawers sitting inside. I slide open the underwear drawer. Looks the same, though I can’t remember what exactly was in it. I slide the drawer closed. Could the tape have come off another way?
And then I glance down. There is a little piece of tape, wadded up, thrown on the floor. I pick it up.
And there is suddenly the roar of blood in my ears and my chest is pounding. Oh, fuck me. The cats didn’t wad up this piece of tape. He was in here. He can get in through the back door. And now he knows that I’m on to him. I’m moving down the hallway, toward the phone. Police.